Some people have it and some people don’t: an abiding, in-the-bones love for old and obsolescent things that would still work perfectly if only there were any need for them anymore. These aren’t just people who can’t bring themselves to throw anything away, either. These are people who wish that there was still a place for beautiful everyday objects whose day has been and gone. As nice as it is to see begonias planted in an old milk pail or butter churn, there will always be those who pine for the days when milk pails and butter churns were still used for their original purpose, and when they were the ones doing the churning.
Sam Comfort has got this love, but he also likes to repurpose. You might say he falls somewhere between haunted by the former usefulness of some things and inspired by the repurposing possibilities that pulse faintly in others, there for the taking under chipped paint and dust so thick it’s greasy. Then too, maybe he’s driven to create mixed-media works out of beekeeping supplies and old farm implements partly out of packrat guilt.
Comfort also loves bees and beekeeping. The Farm Art Space smells like beeswax, propolis and wood smoke from his show, The Poison of the Honeybee: Unfinished Recipes for Sustainable Hive Management. It’s a very messy show—especially compared to previous Farm offerings, most of them hung with Spartan regard for white space. Most of the pieces in Comfort’s show are dribbled or splattered to some degree with beeswax—some are even held together with it. There are old honey jars caked with it, implements encrusted with it, photographs smeared with it. A piece called “Cooking Candles” has got sprays of dried flowers plastered to a section of beaverboard with beeswax, and beeswax candles fashioned out of peeled-back tin cans.
And if it’s not beeswax, it’s whole chunks of the hive it came from, incorporated into roughly a dozen pieces in the main gallery at Farm. “Sun Baked Potato” looks like a Catherine wheel with whole sections of empty honeycomb affixed like flippers. A wall-mounted piece consists of animal stickers and plastic toys embedded in little alcoves either gouged out of or melted into a section of comb—a section that, like the others, was molded, one flake at a time, into perfect hexagonal rows by female worker bees using wax secreted from their abdomens.
The gallery’s back hallway, on the other hand, just looks like a teenager’s hastily cleaned room, with the debris not so much picked up as shoved aside to create channels through the clutter of shirts, socks, and all manner of other odds and ends—a typewriter here, a tambourine there. The overall effect is that the beekeeper could be back at any minute. He won’t, though. Comfort, who graduated from Bard College in New York and worked as beekeeper in Hinesburg, Vt., is in California on beekeeping business for the duration of the show.
“It’s pretty much all his stuff,” explains a gallery employee. “You can see how prominent beekeeping has become in his life. He’s real interested in ideas of sustainable living—he likes to use the term ‘off the grid.’ [Gallery owner] Wes [Mills] just kind of let him take over the space for his show.”
The mess in the back of the gallery is kind of interesting, though probably no more so than anyone else’s dirty room. It’s slapdash in a way that suggests Comfort was just trying to find things to fill up the gallery—to pad out his show a little. It’s conceptual, insists the Farm employee—but really, I’d say, just barely. There’s a table littered with photographs, words typed seemingly at random on shreds of brown paper bag (“Bisonette,” “Brisson,” “Titus,” “Degree,” “Radar,” “Hubbard”), a few jars and plastic margarine tubs filled with chunks of propolis. It’s actually the propolis that gives the show its most distinctive aroma. Propolis smells like a walk along the river when the cottonwoods are starting to bud, because that’s precisely what propolis is: a reddish, resinous cement bees collect from cottonwoods and other tree buds to patch cracks and holes in the honeycomb. Comfort’s fascination with bee materials is easy to understand, but the “concept” here feels a bit thin on the ground. It sure smells good, though.
Contrived might be the better way to put it—not the whole show, just the messy room part. But you can tell Comfort loves the clutter and mess that come as a natural by-product of creative industry—and, of course, honeybee husbandry.
In fact, the best parts of the show are less about beekeeping proper and more about recreating the environs of an artist’s studio, where mess and clutter serve an equally important decorative function, where layers of creativity in progress can later be uncovered like strata in an archeological dig and savored for the breadth of their eclecticism. The industry, the mess, the extruded clutter of the creative mind are fascinating to look at, but also disingenuous in the same way that it’s disingenuous to rearrange your books when company comes over to make it look like you were reading Herodotus or The Golden Bough when you were actually reading Jackie Collins. Sometimes Comfort seems to be trying a little too hard to show his work, in the math-problem sense, to impress with the process as much as the result.
The sketchbook that serves as the exhibit’s guest-book is revealing of Comfort’s desire to illuminate his methods and processes. It started as a journal meant to accompany the show, but he never really gets past the first few dutiful and desultory entries:
Sunday, June 1?
First day of June. First day off. Have not left the van all day. Raining. Overcast sky non stop. All beat up from keeping bees. Right hand badly swollen. Numbed by healing salve Tom makes from plantains.
And then, a page or two later:
Journal not working out. Please see photos.
The photos he’s referring to, presumably, are the ones scattered here and there around the gallery, often stuck to the work with beeswax. The journal itself is filled with a little bit of everything: jotted-down ideas, inchoate reading lists, aborted brainstorming attempts (“The Cultural Ramifications of Certain Things the Jersey Devil Might Say”), hasty sketches—even old games of tic-tac-toe. Perhaps unintentionally, they’re as much a part of the exhibit as the other pieces, and it’s here that we really get a glimpse of an omnivorous mind grasping for new ideas to seize upon. Again, though, at times Comfort seems just a little too aware of a future readership—that is, if you can decipher his massacred handwriting.
Comfort at least seems genuinely excited about beekeeping, aware that it’s a somewhat esoteric hobby or profession, and intrigued by the bees themselves. “Living Quarters” is a sketch on peeling paper and plywood depicting the stacking arrangement of hive bodies—the boxes where the bees live, store honey and incubate their brood—in a commercial hive. Some parts of the exhibit, like this one, are very literal. Others, like “Fucking Around with Energy Descent,” are reminiscent of what happens when kids try to make their own versions of things that are really too complicated to make themselves—like working robots. “Fucking Around” looks like it should be collecting and storing some kind of renewable energy, as though Comfort sat down one day and tried to make a solar energy device with no manual and using only household materials. “Sun Baked Potato,” similarly, with what appears to be a wad of carbonized matter beneath the Plexiglas in the wheel-hub, looks like it might have been a sixth-grade science project that didn’t quite work, so the results had to be faked.
But then there’s nothing quite as charming as a sixth-grade science project, and the messier the better. Even if it doesn’t quite work.
The Poison of the Honey Bee: Unfinished Recipes for Sustainable Hive Management is the last show for the Farm Art Space. The gallery is open by appointment only through Friday, March 26, its last scheduled day of operation. Call 721-0227 for more information.